NATO's modern relevance has been called into question. The economic and political backlash has reverberated from the global financial crisis and no other sector has come under more fire for budgetary constraint and reduction than national defense. Policy makers in both North America and Europe conclude these precious resources are better spent at home nursing economic recovery. Furthermore, contributions to the alliance have become increasingly disproportionate since the Soviet Union's demise. NATO's members must come to terms with the simple fact that the United States can no longer afford to devote the level of resources it has to NATO in the past decade. Funding cuts are inevitable; instead NATO's focus should be on better coordination and efficient spending of the resources they do have. If NATO cannot evolve, it risks at best a hallowing out and or growing irrelevance, and at worst, a slow dissolution.
A paradigm shift is required, focusing on specific goals and optimized methods for providing security, not the blanket defense structure inherited from the Cold War. The Smart Defense initiative, espousing prioritization, specialization and cooperation has the potential to achieve this but it needs to be implemented as a focused program, not a conceptual doctrine. In a way Smart Defense is a return to what NATO always should have been. Over the course of the Cold War, NATO's inherently organizational role and the premise behind Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty were muddled together conveying the illusion of an adequate singular military force. However, the Cold War has been consigned to history and with it the fear of massive land-force contingents marching across Europe. As NATO adapts its identity and mission to the post-Cold War era, its defense strategy must adapt in tandem to account for both new and transforming regional security threats, and more stringent economic constraints.
To maximize NATO’s efficiency gains through the Smart Defense program, its implementation should focus on the following two policies:
First, NATO's standing military component should be optimized and reorganized for first-contact and crisis management missions. Any notion of NATO's permanent forces being able to conduct full-scale war operations unsupported for prolonged periods of time needs to be abandoned. A clear understanding of the delineation between the NATO organization and the more traditional military alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty is vital. NATO's standing forces exist to provide deterrence and in the event of aggression capable defense while member states mobilize full-scale support under Article 5.
An excellent example has already been initiated within NATO in the Territorial Missile Defense component of the larger Ballistic Missile Defense program. The benefit of this is twofold. While member states upgrade and or build missile defense capacity to protect their own territory, integration into a greater NATO information network allows early warnings and vital intelligence such as trajectory, target and origin to be shared throughout NATO, providing scaled defense for all members. Defense capabilities that allow for combining individual national components into NATO's larger defense scheme provide shared benefits, while member states maintain sovereignty on their separate implementations.
Second, the inherent coordination capacity of NATO needs to be further developed and utilized. NATO must take a greater leadership role in facilitating the alignment of goals, utilization of resources, and role assignments. Greater intelligence sharing, capacity building and joint-training are all areas where NATO can take a more proactive role in uniting and coordinating its members, rather than assuming bilateral contact will always identify available opportunities for cooperation.
Joint-development within the European defense industry is a prime example. If individual members struggle to enhance and modernize their own capabilities, multinational projects are an efficient method to share the burden of research and development across multiple nations while dispersing the resulting benefits among partners. NATO can and should serve as a broker for these projects, improving defense industrial transparency among members, aligning various resources of contributors efficiently and insuring there is no overlap. This of course can and should include the United States as well, as was done in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, but it is the smaller and more recent European members of NATO who would garner the most proportional benefit from inter-alliance industrial cooperation.
Facing a changing security environment and economic hardship, NATO must stress optimization of its military components and greater utilization of its capacity as an organizational coordinator. Secretary General Rasmussen stressed that trust was essential among members for Smart Defense to work, and he is right. NATO cannot function effectively with halfhearted efforts at burden sharing, and none of its members can afford the added economic and military drain a hamstringed NATO would constitute. Thus, either its members commit fully to revitalizing the Alliance in a sustainable way or face a degenerating NATO and the painful revelation of their own inadequacies.
Andrew Windsor is a Masters student of Transnational Security at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. His research interests include the US-Japan Alliance, Revolutions in Military Affairs, East Asian security, and military competition in the Asia-Pacific region.